The Knights of the FanHouse Roundtable have assembled to consider the NBA in '08-09. In this dispatch, we discuss the contenders of the Western Conference. Be sure to also check out the hub of our NBA Preview activity .
Ziller: Can anyone top the Lakers?
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Matt Moore: The smart money is on the Lakers. There's no question. If you're talking percentages, I'll give the Lakers a 68% chance to win the West. There are question marks. And their route to the Finals was deceptively easy last year (I'm becoming a full fledged Jazz hater, which is bizarre given my small market affection). But come on. Even I'm not crazy enough to say anyone else can be the favorite versus a team with Kobe Bryant who's actually somehow gotten better, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. It's just sick.
But there are reasons to think that if the Hornets had been able to withstand the Spurs' attrition-war last year, they would have pushed that team harder than anyone had before and harder than the Spurs, who had nothing left at that point, did. The biggest difference when I talk about the Lakers versus the Hornets is that the Hornets to me were a more consistent team. The Lakers were either on long winning streaks or looking vulnerable like they did in that nasty stretch against the Bobcats and a near-loss to the Wizards at home. When the Lakers are on, they're nearly unstoppable. But the Hornets are the quiet assassin.
They come in, they execute, and they leave with your heart in a box. They're very consistent on offense and defense. Their offense isn't as good as the Lakers, but their defense, particularly their interior defense, is worlds better. At least it was last year. The Lakers are still the smart money,but I don't think it's insanity to suggest the Hornets could create some panic in L.A.
It's strange because I look at the Rockets and am wowed by their talent, by their depth, by their coaching, by their roster management, by their defense and their weapons. But I stopped and asked myself real quick, "Could this Rockets team beat the Lakers in seven games?" And it took me about a half second to say "No way in hell."
Matt Watson: The Lakers have to be the favorite, and I agree with just about everything Moore said about the Hornets. But I'm also not ready to give up on the Jazz. They won 54 games last year despite a losing record (17-24) on the road. To me, those road struggles look like a fluke, and when you consider only three games separated them from the one seed, it's not unreasonable at all to think they could win the most games in the NBA this year.
I suppose we should be a little worried about Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko being worn out from the Olympics, but it's impossible to quantify what the impact of their long summer will be. And in Boozer's case, he's essentially playing for a contract, considering he can opt out after this season.
In any case, I think we can all agree that San Antonio will slip in the standings this year, especially with Manu Ginobili missing the first two months. If they're at full strength come playoff time, though, they're as dangerous as ever.
Houston is extremely intriguing. Will they get the top seed? No chance. But I wouldn't rule them out in a seven-game series against the Lakers, mostly because facing Kobe Bryant would probably bring out the most intense seven games of Ron Artest's life. And, if he's healthy (always a big if, but still), Tracy McGrady is as lethal as anyone in the league.
They made noise by making it to the Western Conference Finals two years ago. In that year, they faced the Rockets who were considerably less deep than they are now, and it still took them seven games. Then, they were blessed, annointed, and runner-runner-straight lucky to catch the Golden State Warriors, who had accomplished the impossible and beaten the Mavs due to a complex series of mental breakdowns and matchup problems. If the Mavs had not completely panicked, does anyone really think that Jazz team would have beaten the Mavs team that won more games than anyone and featured the MVP that year? The Jazz are one Stephen Jackson-Matt Barnes psycho-somatic-addict-insane explosion away from having been whipped out of the second round consecutive years.
Did anyone pick them to beat the Lakers last year? Anyone? They landed the Rockets, without Yao, and it STILL took them more than a sweep to get out. They landed some haymakers at home against the Lakers in the semifinals, but none of them really rocked the Lakers back on their heels. That series was decided from the get-go. This is a great, great regular season team. But I have no idea why people think that a team that features a center that plays offense on the perimeter and doesn't bang down low like Rasheed, an inconsistent small forward who wants to play in Russia, and a power forward who seems to think he can somehow challenge Tim Duncan repeatedly in the paint without getting blocked. This is a good team. But it's not elite.
I refuse to say the Spurs are dead until they lose four games in the playoffs. I've had my heart ripped from my chest still beating too many times.
The Rockets seem like that team I can convince myself can win, until they lose, at which point I ask "What in Crazy Pill's name was I thinking?"
Ziller: The Jazz are considered elite because they are elite. I'm obviously such a huge Chris Paul mark I actually point and laugh at people who bring this Deron Williams talk at me, but Boozer is exceedingly misrepresented as some softy just because he's not a 7-foot behemouth. I don't care how many inches he gives up on the glass, he's still (statistically) one of the top 10 rebounders in the league. He went 22/11 per 36 minutes last season.
The Jazz finished three games out of first place in the toughest conference race in modern history. How does the style of their offense (which happened to be #1 in the league) hurt them? How does Boozer's height hurt them? Are we really going to call a perimeter-oriented center an albatross the season after Pau Gasol made the Finals? Is Kirilenko's psyche really worse now than the past two seasons, when the Jazz, respectively, made the conference finals and played L.A. tougher than any team but Boston?
Moore: Hey, like I said, they're a great regular season team. They're remarkably adept at beating up bad teams and can trounce any good team at home. And my issue with Boozer is his ability to make big plays when he needs to. He tends to kind of vomit the ball at the rim, and that doesn't go so well. But that's subjective, maybe I'm completely off on that. But I compare these weapons to what the rest of the West brings defensively, especially with the fact that they struggle with good defensive teams especially (who doesn't?), and I just don't buy it. The West is loaded with good defensive squads (outside of the Lakers), and I can't see it. Also, one of the reasons the Lakers made the Finals is that Pau Gasol manned up and got dirty inside. Okur shrinked away from that. I like Okur's game, but they need Millsap to come up huge, and he took a step back last year.
"Played LA tougher than any team but Boston." is a little slanted when the only other teams they played were a Nuggets squad that honestly probably didn't belong in the playoffs and a Spurs squad that looked like it had just come out of a coal mine explosion.
Hey, everyone's all on board for the Jazz, which is great for them. I'm just not buying it. The offense is high octane, Deron may end up as the second best point guard in the league by the end of the season, and when all the engines are firing, they're terrific. In the regular season. I think they're a good team, and I think they win the division easily. But they're not a championship contender.
Here's one, and I'm not being sarcastic. How many power forwards in the West do you think are better than Boozer? I'd say only Duncan, Dirk,Amare and Gasol (if they play Gasol there). See what I did there? I didn't put David West there, even though I wanted to. I'm trying to be reasonable.
Ziller: What about the Suns and Mavericks? The two best power forwards in the West play in Phoenix and Dallas. Which one is better off this season?
Moore: Amare. Amare took to not having to play the 5 last year like a duck to water. His numbers at the end of last season were just sickening. He and Nash are depending on each other even more and with Shaq there, he gets all the credit and less of the criticism. Dirk on the other hand is going to have to somehow keep up his production from last season and hit more three pointers, since Carlisle says he wants that, but Kidd's shot is no longer dependable and Antoine Wright is a terrible 3-shooter that just got moved to starting small guard. I feel like every season, Nowitzki is asked to do more and more with less and less around him, and that's just not a good way to put your superstar in a position to succeed. Dirk will still be brilliant, but Amare's going to have the better season. Plus, he's making goggles look sexy.
Ziller: So, by extension, Phoenix will have the better season? Who will be a bigger drain, Shaq or Kidd?
I'd argue Kidd will be, because he'll play more minutes and he's already less effective than Shaq. Jason Terry can pick up the slack, but Kidd will be running the point for 36-40 minutes. If Shaq offers 30 minutes of Amare relief on defense and a bit of offense, the Suns can be pretty good.
Moore: Actually, I disagree. I think the slip will be slight for the first half of the season, but you'll really start to notice in the second half. I think we're about to find out just how much of a letdown Boris Diaw is and that Leandro Barbosa simply is not going to learn the skills he needs to in order to be a top contributer. Conversely, I think JET and Howard are going to be lights out this season with motivation behind them. The drain will be equal, but the other issue, is, again, I'm not sure how much Nash's heart is in this team. I don't think he believes in the changes that have been made. The Suns are going to need more bench help than they've gotten to keep pace, and I'm not sure they have the guns to do it, unless Alando Tucker is ready to make the jump. He could be a game changer for them. I guess what I'm trying to say is that both teams have pieces going rapidly down and reasons to be hopeful, but I expect the Mavs to finish just a handful of games better.
Ziller: Can Diaw even get worse than he has been the last two seasons? And Barbosa has been one of the top bench contributors in the league the last three years; is he going to regress out of the blue? Grant Hill concerns me (he's not the right fit alongside Nash and Stoudemire), but as you mentioned, Antoine Wright concerns me a lot more. And I'm not in the business of guessing who will be extra motivated because of off-court stuff. That's a fool's gambit, trying to get in the heads of people you don't know at all.
I know Amare is nuts, Nash is nuts, Shaq is serviceable, Raja Bell is a great one-on-one defender, and Barbosa can score. I'll take that over Dirk's collection.
So, the Blazers haven't been mentioned yet. NBA Championship or bust, right?
Moore: If it weren't for remembering that the Jazz are a terrific regular season team, I had the Blazers winning the division. I think pushing a team to six games in the second round is the ceiling for them. There's so much young talent, so you're tempted to question if they can keep it together, but we said the same thing about the Hornets last season. Basically, great, we've got another juggernaut in the West. I want to see how Roy does this season with the injuries and the wear and tear. Other than that, who knows how far they can go if the seedings bounce favorably for them?
Ziller: But didn't the Hornets basically do something similar to what Portland fans think is possible -- out of the playoffs to the second round? N.O. did have a bit more experienced core, of course, but they didn't have a one-year flame-out.
Watson: Yes, I'll grant you that. But New Orleans also had their point guard blossom into an MVP candidate, not to mention a roster with a few more veteran cogs. Portland, meanwhile, will rely almost exclusively on players reaching untapped potential. I guess that's what makes rooting for them so exciting (and don't get me wrong, I'm on their bandwagon, too), but I'm a little nervous setting the bar too high. Losing a tough six- or seven-game series in the first round shouldn't be a disappointment for this team, nor should it be considered "flaming out."